Photography by Madeline Cottingham

Standing Rock: The Protectors

Over 300 tribes from around the globe have come together to unite against the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172 mile pipeline slated to carry crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to storage facilities in Illinois. Since April 2016 thousands of protesters, or Water Protectors as they prefer to be called, have set up camp at the site of the Missouri River crossing.

In response, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department along with various state and local law enforcement have utilized military-style weapons against the Water Protectors, which has lead to the numerous injuries and hospitalizations.

The $3.7 billion pipeline is nearly complete with its last stretch to run beneath the Missouri River, just upstream of the Standing Rock Reservation, which is their primary source for drinking water along with 17 million other people throughout the country. The route passes through land that was originally reserved for the Sioux in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

In many ways this resistance is both novel and a perpetuation of a tortured history. The scope of this communion of tribes has never been seen before, yet the endless fight of indigenous people to protect and maintain their land has been carved into America’s past.


Dakota Access Pipeline construction, seen from the edges of camp. The proposed route was originally slated to cross the Missouri River just north of Bismarck, ND but was later moved to within 1500 ft upstream of the Standing Rock Reservation.

The Missouri River is 12,000 years old. It springs from the Rocky Mountains and flows across the country before joining the Mississippi River to form the world’s fourth longest river system. For more than 9,000 years Native Americans have inhabited its banks. Lewis and Clarke used the river to navigate their 1804-06 expedition. In the 1940’s, Congress ordered the construction of several dams along the Missouri just north of the Standing Rock Reservation, flooding their best lands and forcing hundreds to re-locate.

Cannon Ball, Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota. Population 875 in 2010. In 2013 more than half of the population fell below the poverty level.

Elih Lizama, 24, of the Apache and Mayan tribes from Salinas, CA.
Lizama is at the front of almost every action; some describe him as a frontliner. During a particularly brutal standoff with law enforcement on November 2nd, 2016 Lizama used his body as a shield to protect others from rubber bullets.

The youth began this movement when Jacilyn Charger and a group of young runners ran a relay of 2,000 miles from Cannon Ball, ND to Washington DC to deliver a petition in opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The youth, in many ways, remain the core of the movement. During all organized actions they are constantly reminding the participants that they are there in peace and prayer.


Flag Row at dusk. Hundreds of flags representing the support of indigenous people from across the world line the main entrance into Oceti Sakowin Camp, located a few miles north of Cannon Ball on the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation.


The Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806 has been the site of several clashes between Water Protectors and law enforcement.


A Water Protector’s dog patrols the Backwater Bridge, which remained closed through the winter.


On December 5th, 2016 in a blizzard, with temperatures in the teens, and winds gusting over 45 mph, visibility reached a low of .25 miles as Water Protectors march to the Blackwater Bridge.

That evening the Water Protectors work together to ensure everyone makes it to a delegated warm space in the camps and on the reservation. Medics travel throughout the camps performing wellness checks, and keep a keen eye on youth and the elders.


Jacquelyn Cordova
“I’m 26 years old from Taos, New Mexico and I’m a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council. It’s challenging to show up in the face of darkness with light. I don’t think the police officers are horrible people, they’re being controlled by the system and that’s been passed down through generations... They’ve acted on behalf of the darkness, for sure, but in no way is that attached to them at their core and who they are. I feel like really the only way to connect with people is by being human with them… So they need to be taken care of too, and they need to be loved and not judged.”


Thomas Tonatiuh Lopez, 24, is Chicano and a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council.

On December 5th, 2016 it was announced that the Army Corp of Engineers will not grant the easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under the Missouri river.
In response to the announcement Lopez explained, “Growing up as an indigenous person often you feel ignored, very isolated, unwanted, like if you and your people were to disappear everyone would just be happier. It can be really hard growing up thinking that no one wants you around, everybody hates you, that you’re just a costume, you’re just a bedtime story, you’re just a figment of someone’s imagination. Not being identified as a human being, not being seen as a group of people. To see [the easement denial] was very empowering, to finally know that we took back our voice, we let the world know that we are here and we are not going anywhere.”


At its peak, 10,000 Water Protectors were camping alongside the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers. Hundreds of tribes from around the world are represented at Standing Rock and together they have worked to build a community of non-violence and a movement based in peace and prayer.

Madeline Cottingham is a New York based photographer, dedicated to examining environmental and human rights issues. Her photography has taken her across the globe, from gold mines in Tanzania and the ruins of Hurricane Sandy, to the front lines of the natural gas revolution in Pennsylvania. She received a BA in Photography and Environmental Studies from New York University and is currently living in Brooklyn. Visit her website:

Kristi DiLalloComment